Bachelor of Science Honours, Biochemistry Specialization | Bachelor of Arts, Religious Studies
Certificates in Entrepreneurship & Gender and Sexual Diversity
Queen’s University, Kingston ON
As I began researching this paper, I came across an article written by L.H. Baekeland, the inventor of the first commercially viable photography paper and ‘father of modern plastics.’ In the Danger of Overspecialization (1907), Baekeland cautions how isolation within niche scientific fields can lead to the hoarding of information, where scientist stop considering the impact of their discoveries on the world at large, thus stunting innovation. Baekeland provided a solution to this problem by stressing the importance of having a wide range of disciplines from which to draw information, as “knowledge does not contribute necessarily to the wisdom of the individual, unless that knowledge is sufficiently diversified to stimulate [their] thinking powers” (1907, 852).
I believe what Baekeland wrote in 1907 is still pertinent today. Over time, scientific fields have become far more specialized, contributing to the division between science and the humanities. Students are forced to pigeon-hole themselves in order to acquire the vast amounts of knowledge required to compete in highly specialized fields. At the same time, true innovation within scientific fields can be nearly impossible without an interdisciplinary mindset. To truly impact the world with scientific innovation, young students need to keep their minds open to exploring the arts and humanities.
To support this argument, I would like to provide two examples of how scientific research and application can be led astray without careful consideration of the problems readily identified from the perspective of the humanities.
Example 1: Clinical Trials and Sociology
One of the first major steps in getting a drug and/or treatment into the healthcare system is to test it in a clinical trial. Ideally, researchers tailor clinical trial participants to simulate the most at-risk population. For example, let’s imagine you are a researcher investigating a new antiretroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS. In America, new HIV diagnoses occur most often in African American and Hispanic patients (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019). However, these populations are greatly underrepresented in clinical trials. African Americans represent 12% of the total population, but only 5% of clinical trial participants, while Hispanics make up 16% of the population, but only 1% of clinical trial participants (SWHR and the FDA, 2011). As a researcher, you know this is a problem because the efficacy of antiretroviral agents used to treat HIV/AIDS has been shown to be dependent to some extent on ethnicity (Rotger et al., 2006).
You are unable to develop truly successful treatments, because you do not have an accurate representation of those most at risk. If you have education in the humanities, you can recognize the impacts of this problem, and develop strategies to mitigate the issue. One possibility would be to improve recruitment from underrepresented populations (HDP Health, 2018). A major barrier to participating in clinical trials in America is the cost associated with reaching the treatment facilities. In America, 46% of African Americans and 40% of Hispanics live in poverty (Denning and DiNenno, 2017). By appreciating the sociological factors at play, you may then be able to design a truly meaningful clinical trial by looking into how to increase access to transportation to the testing facility for these populations, or how to reduce the cost of participation in the trial for patients. Additionally, you may begin to recognize important partnerships you can form with related professionals, such as public health educators, transport infrastructure officers, epidemiologists, and more. As such, the valuable research you have conducted has a better chance of being of value to the people who need your help the most.
Example 2: Medical Diagnoses and Gender Studies
Science isn’t limited to the lab. Often, students pursuing a science degree have ambitions to enter medicine. Let’s imagine you are a doctor. A 35-year old female patient makes an appointment because she has been feeling generally unwell and has had unexplained weakness. You are concerned because she recently delivered a baby preterm and has ongoing polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). You perform full risk analysis but are at a loss for what the problem could be. Unfortunately, not long after the appointment your patient is hospitalized for acute myocardial infraction.
The patient’s hospitalization was not completely your fault. In fact, women overall are substantially less likely to be receive guideline-based myocardial infarction therapies than young men, because the risk prediction strategies for diagnosing this problem do not include female risk factors (such as PCOS and preterm birth) (Cardiology, 2019). While there are many factors at play, one reason your patient and many other women fail to be correctly treated is because of how heart disease is gendered in societal depictions (Cardiology, 2019). A study in Switzerland found that women were significantly delayed in calling emergency services when experiencing a heart attack “due to the myth that [they] usually occur in men.” (Meyer et al., 2018, 288). Additionally, doctors frequently misdiagnose women with heart disease as having panic disorders or hypochondria (Harvard Health Publishing, 2017). Insightfully, it has also been found that women are more likely to survive heart attacks when their attending doctor is also female (Mammoser, 2018). This is just one powerful example of how an understanding of how gender impacts social and medical interactions can lead to improved patient outcomes in the stereotypically ‘scientific’ field of medicine.
Ultimately, the decision to pursue education in both the sciences and the humanities rests in the hands of students. My primary degree is an Honours Specialization in Biochemistry, for which I additionally completed a pharmaceutical internship. While this has been a valuable learning experience, I have found that having supplemental information from the humanities has sharpened my scholastic abilities in numerous ways. For example, I believe my general BA in Religious Studies provided me with an opportunity to learn how to research and write convincing academic arguments, which is beneficial when campaigning for recognition or funding for scientific research. My certificate in Entrepreneurship taught me how to iteratively design research projects, seek out key partnerships and explore ways to implement scientific innovation. Similarly, an additional certificate in Gender and Sexual Diversity has led me to consider the barriers people face when seeking medical treatment.
However, I also believe that the value of an interdisciplinary education hinges on whether or not you as a scientist want to change the world. Pursuing a career in science purely to collect information is noble and valuable, but ultimately may not have many real-world implications if the field is overspecialized. It has been said that medicine is ‘socially embedded’ and must be understood on a human-centric level. I would argue that ‘science’ as a whole must also be socially embedded in order to truly make a difference in the lives of those most in need. In short, an interdisciplinary toolbox combining both the arts and sciences can be a very powerful way to change the world.
Emily Lind is the Biology & Biochemistry Section Editor for The Canadian Science Fair Journal.
She is currently completing an honours specialization in Biochemistry at Queen’s University. She holds a bachelor of arts in Religious Studies, as well as certificates in Entrepreneurship and Gender and Sexual Diversity.
Baekland, L.H. (1907). The Danger of Overspecialization. Science 25(648):845-854. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/1632472.
Beery, T.A. (1995). Gender bias in the diagnosis and treatment of coronary artery disease. Heart and Lung: The Journal of Cardiopulmonary and Acute Care 24(6):427-35.
Cardiology’s problem women [editorial] (2019). The Lancet 303(10175):P959. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(19)30510-0.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019). HIV and African Americans. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [website]. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/racialethnic/africanamericans/index.html.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019). HIV and Hispanics/Latinos. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [website]. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/racialethnic/hispaniclatinos/index.html.
Denning, P. and DiNenno, E. (2017). Communities in Crisis: Is There a Generalized HIV Epidemic in Impoverished Urban Areas of the United States? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [website]. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/poverty.html.
Health Publishing (2017). Gender matters: Heart disease risk in women. Harvard Medical School [website]. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/gender-matters-heart-disease-risk-in-women.
HDP Health (2018). Your Drugs Probably Weren’t Tested on People of Colour: Medical Research doesn’t reflect America’s diversity, and it’s created a health and economic disaster. Bright Magazine [online publication]. Retrieved from https://brightthemag.com/health-medical-research-pharmaceutical-minorities-eugenics-5c5284a8cd7f.
Mammoser, G. (2018). Women More Likely to Survive a Heart Attack if Their Doctor is Female. Healthline [website]. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health-news/women-more-likely-survive-heart-attack-doctor-is-female#1.
Meyer, M.R., Mernheim, A.M., Kurz, D.J., O’Sullivan, C.J., Tüller, D., Zbinden, R., Rosemann, T., and Eberli, F.R. (2018). Gender differences in patient and system delay for primary percutaneous coronary intervention: current trends in a Swiss ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction population. European Heart Journal: Acute Cardiovascular Care 8(3):283-290. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/2048872618810410.
Rotger, M., Csajka, C., and Telenti, A. (2006). Genetic, Ethnic, and Gender Differences in the Pharmacokinetics of Antiretroviral Agents. Current HIV/AIDS Reports 2(3):118-125. Retrieved from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/159154105.pdf.
Society for Women’s Health Research and the United States Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Women’s Health (2011). Dialogues on Diversifying Clinical Trials Conference: Strategies for Engaging Women and Minorities in Clinical Trials [White paper]. Retrieved from Federal Drug Administration website: https://www.fda.gov/files/science%20&%20research/ published/White-Paper-on-the-Dialogues-on-Diversifying-Clinical-Trials-Conference.pdf.